Thanks, Yastreblyansky and Libby -- I really appreciate your posts this weekend, and I hope I won't be bugging you again for a while.
This morning I just want to respond to Mark Leibovich's harrumphing take on media coverage of Ferguson, which appeared in The New York Times Magazine yesterday:
In a less media-saturated time, we might have gone on to consider this serious news event on its own terms, with journalists providing facts and insights, and politicians pondering a course of action. But in the mixed-up scrum of politics and media that our so-called national conversation has become, a serious news event is only the start of the news. Soon after the shooting, the suburb of Ferguson became a roiling caldron of outside observers, all bent on "bearing witness" to the situation....Leibovich wants us to believe that that the journalistic response to Ferguson was nothing but preening narcissism:
In their sometimes lofty self-assessments, journalists have long described their jobs as "bearing witness" just as politicians vowed to "bear witness" to whatever it was they were advocating for, or against.... In today’s social media- driven news cycle, however, "bearing witness" has largely become an easy rhetorical snack food — a mass-market trope available to anyone who wants to weigh in, or show up....
As politicians arrived, journalists who sometimes outnumbered the protesters often became the story themselves. They went, ostensibly, "to bear witness of this moment for our readers," as Akilah Johnson of The Boston Globe told Poynter....Posturing as a Mencken or Orwell, he writes:
Within a few days, unsurprisingly, the rampant talk of "bearing witness" became central to the "national conversation" that the shooting in Ferguson had sparked. Bearing witness and national conversations are in fact close twins in today's insipid talking-point wasteland.
What does "bearing witness" or "starting a conversation" even mean? It is not really clear, except that they have become catchall proxies for kind of being there, kind of taking note and -- in many cases -- not really being able to do much of anything.And "not really being able to do much of anything" means, specifically, that journalists are not "providing facts and insights" and politicians are not "pondering a course of action."
Except that the coverage of Ferguson was actually some of the most news-filled reporting we've seen in a while, and politicians actually have pondered courses of action as a result of it. Leibovich seems to be selling us cynicism because cynicism is in fashion, but he's selling us cynicism about participants in a news event who actually did some good work.
Look at what America learned from journalists covering Ferguson (and from journalists whose preexisting work on issues related to Ferguson became freshly relevant): We learned about the shocking militarization of our police, particularly in small towns where there can't possibly be a need for anti-terror weaponry. We learned that police forces started to become dumping grounds for post-Cold War military surplus a generation ago, a process that accelerated after 9/11. We learned that the small-town armies receiving these goods often don't even know how to use it properly.
We learned that demographic changes can leave a small majority-non-white town with an overwhelmingly white government that's utterly indifferent to the community. We learned that cash-strapped small towns balance their books with fines levied as a result of frequent and gratuitous traffic stops, which in Ferguson are clearly done in a racially biased way. We also learned about an incident in which Ferguson cops beat an innocent black man and then charged him with property damage for bleeding on a police uniform.
We saw authorities in nearby St. Louis releasing a citizen video of another police shooting, in which the cops seemed to show no interest in resolving the situation in any way apart from gunfire. The cops felt compelled to go public with this because of media attention on Ferguson. It was easy to imagine that the Mike Brown incident happened because there was just as little effort made to resolve it non-fatally.
We also saw journalists debunking disinformation, and thus exposing it as disinformation -- about the shooter's alleged injuries, and about the victim's supposed criminal past.
And the political response? Many politicians called for reductions in police militarization, including a top-tier Republican presidential candidate, who thus positioned himself to the left of his party (and who also, secondarily, denounced racially unequal justice in America, which leaves him greatly at odds with his party-mates). Ferguson seems to be accelerating moves to equip police in various locales with body cameras. And the Justice Department announced an investigation of the Ferguson police department's civil rights record. Meanwhile, the public response to events in Ferguson have included voter registration drives (although a Republican Party official in Missouri described this development as "disgusting").
People who are genuinely skeptical of politics and journalism feel that way because much of the time we don't get the information we need from journalists and we don't get the actions the public needs from politicians. But that wasn't really true about Ferguson. Journalists provided us with a lot of useful information. Some political actors did good things, or at least said some of the right things. If you want to be cynical, be cynical about the fact that none of this may amount to much, justice may never be served, the system may forget everything we talked about in August, and we may go back to business as usual. But don't be cynical about people who did at least some of what we needed them to do.
I didn't read Leibovich's book This Town, but the excerpt I read left me somewhat baffled: the book was supposed to be a takedown of the Beltway elite, but the storytelling seemed to glorify the supposed targets. It had a fake veneer of cynicism, but it didn't seem cynical about the inside players at all. It seemed to regard their career trajectories as very, very meaningful.
Leibovich's essay on Ferguson seems similar -- he seems to care primarily about being admired for being cynical. He's working his niche -- professional critic of the players in politics and the media -- but he doesn't really seem to be targeting his outrage at actual betrayals of the public. In this case, it's the authorities who've turned Ferguson into an occupied territory. It's not the targets of Leibovich's sneer.